Ethnicity is the first protected category of the United Nations Refugee Convention. The 1951 Convention defines a refugee as a person who is outside his country of residence or nationality “because of fear of persecution for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group or political opinion”. “
Racism negatively affects the lives of Haitians at home and abroad. Yet Haitian migrants today are rarely considered eligible for asylum.
For this we have to think about racism and the treatment of refugees internationally. Brazil-led UN peacekeeping operations and the outsourcing of US immigration controls to Latin America have further complicated asylum for Haitians.
Why is race so central to the UN refugee convention? Perhaps because much of it was prepared by former Jewish refugees from the Holocaust and their allies. The drafters added two important sections.
The first, Article 3, stipulates non-discrimination by recipient countries (by “race, religion and country of origin”). The second is the principle of non-retaliation which prohibits countries from returning migrants back home in dangerous conditions.
Other considerations that determined the final scope of the convention included the break-up of empires and continued racial barriers to immigration from wealthy countries.
Haiti, Colonialism and Empire
Much of the racism towards Haitians comes from overseas.
In the late 1700s, Haitian revolutionaries expelled French colonists and abolished slavery. A few years later, Haiti sheltered victims of slavery and colonialism elsewhere.
But France and other countries sought compensation for their lost “property”, meaning human beings. Haiti had to pay this debt in the 20th century.
From 1915 to 1934, the United States military occupied Haiti with lasting social and political consequences. In 1937, Dominican dictator Rafael Trujillo ordered the slaughter of thousands of Haitians living near the border.
From the 1950s to the 1980s, the US supported the Duvalier dictatorship. Since then, there has been almost constant foreign interference in Haitian politics.
Faced with economic and political instability, many Haitians move abroad to improve their lives and that of their relatives. For Haitians, the lines between migrant, economic migrant and refugee are often blurred. But legally, these categories can make all the difference.
America sends Haitians back home
Beginning in 1981, the US pursued a policy of interference and processing of Haitian migrants at sea. This effectively established a loophole and allowed them to circumvent the principle of non-refoulement and send Haitians back home.
Following this precedent, wealthy countries today increasingly began to “remote control” immigration—in other words, they remotely control immigration into international waters and the territories of third countries.
There is now widespread outsourcing of security and human rights as Latin American countries are placed in charge of receiving refugees and managing UN peacekeeping missions.
Brazilian in Haiti, Haitian in Brazil
In 2004, democratically elected Haitian President Jean Bertrand Aristide was ousted for a second time, perhaps with the help of US Canada, France, the US and other major players quickly recognizing the regime that replaced him. Later that year, Haiti received a peacekeeping mission, the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti, known as MINUSTAH.
As of 2017, MINUSTAH’s multinational military force was run by Brazilian generals, with much intervention from the US, Canada and France.
To politicize the situation, these generals were instructed to deal with the problem of “gangs” by force. Urban neighborhoods, where the gang allegedly lived, were precisely the grounds of Aristide’s political support.
In a book about MINUSTAH military commanders, these generals called the low-income neighborhoods of Port-au-Prince “favelas” or shantytowns, suggesting that the problem was one of policing.
Another word they use is pacificação, It is not just a translation of peacekeeping. historically, pacificação was a euphemism for the colonization of indigenous peoples.
It is also a reference to the work of the police units of Rio de Janeiro known as the Unides da Policia Pacifica. During that period there was an ongoing exchange of security management personnel, ideas and practices between Port-au-Prince and Rio de Janeiro.
After a major 2010 earthquake that displaced hundreds of thousands of people, Brazilian authorities became concerned about Haitians coming to their country.
My ongoing research with professors Martha Balaguerra and Luis van Eyschott at the University of Toronto explores how Haitian immigrants are treated in Brazil, Colombia and Mexico.
Brazilian immigration policy is set by the Conselho Nacional de Imigraço (CNIG). In the minutes of the CNIg meeting, government officials cited Brazil’s “special relationship” with Haiti (the Minusta operation) as a reason for accepting Haitian immigrants.
However, he argues that Haitians are not refugees, as they fled because of the earthquake. They do not acknowledge Brazil’s contribution to Haiti’s political and economic instability.
Brazilian officials expressed concern that Haitians would “establish a more permanent Haitian diaspora” in Brazil. This discourse is in line with Brazil’s long history of racially biased immigration policy that favored Europeans.
In response, the Brazilian authorities created humanitarian visas specifically for Haitian immigrants. It provides temporary legal status, but does not come with the same protections from deportation and government resources as asylum.
As Brazil’s economy deteriorated, many Haitians moved north hoping to move to the US or Canada. Many people pass through Colombia through the Darien Gap, a dangerous area that connects Colombia to Central America.
Haitians travel north
In Colombia, Haitians join the routes of other migrants. This includes people of Colombian, many African and indigenous origins who were displaced through land-grabbing by paramilitary forces and the local elite. Others are from Venezuela, Africa and Asia.
Further north, they join Central American immigrants who escape violence from the International War on Drugs.
Read more: Trump and Biden ignore how the war on drugs fueled violence in Latin America
They then move to Mexico, where the US has outsourced management of asylum seekers.
Many people give up and stay in Tijuana.
In southern Mexico, a sort of open-air prison was built to hold refugees without the right papers to go north. Those who reach the US are then detained, after which many are deported.
The 1951 Refugee Convention was designed to protect those fleeing the conditions created by Nazi Germany’s genocidal anti-Jewish racism. But the refugee system fails to stop the widespread and often deadly forms of racism that Haitians face. This racism is international, and its source is the countries of destination.